[With Die Hard turning 30, we’re reposting our retrospective article.]
When I hear the words “best action movie”, I immediately think of Die Hard. No other film even comes close. It is pure action removed from sci-fi or any other genre. Even though there were plenty of blockbuster action movies in the 1980s, Die Hard is unique in how it constantly puts its hero at a massive disadvantage. To the extent that a blockbuster will allow, John McClane (Bruce Willis) is the everyman. Schwarzenegger and Stallone were the physically imposing heroes, but Willis brought a scrappy quality to McClane even though the character’s actions verged on superhuman. Although he’s very hard to kill, McClane is both the reluctant hero and the ideal 1980s American hero. From its unforgettable protagonist, Die Hard took on an identity that made it distinct and enduring.
In case you haven’t seen Die Hard, never admit this fact to anyone. Simply rush out to see the film as quickly as possible. There are far too many ways to see a movie in the digital age, so just set aside two hours and go watch it right now.
After quickly dealing with the necessary amount of exposition, Die Hard quickly moves to the action once Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) and his band of thieves storm Nakatomi Tower about twenty minutes in. Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza‘s screenplay puts McClane at a huge disadvantage by stripping of his shoes, which is both slightly comical and a set-up for a brutal payoff later in the film when glass rips his feet to shreds. Shoeless, shirtless, and armed only with his service pistol, McClane is hopelessly outgunned, and as we can see from some of the burlier henchman—most notably Karl (Alexander Godunov)—he’s physically outmatched as well. In fact, from the very first fight, we see him clinging on to Karl’s brother, Tony (Andreas Wisniewski), and able to come out victorious by basically falling down a flight of stairs.
While can’t forget John McClane’s big heroics in the film, it’s important to remember that McClane spends the first half trying to get help. He’s not macho in the conventional sense of, “It’s all up to me to stop this,” but being a professional that calls in the cavalry. McClane is even reluctant to be in Los Angeles. Strangely, the terrorist attack puts McClane back in his element. We see his New York personality completely out of touch with the freewheeling Los Angelinos, but once gets to be a cop, there’s always a sense of control no matter how crazy things get. He’s quick, he’s resourceful, he’s clever, and he’s got a dark sense of humor (“Now I’ve got a machine gun. Ho ho ho.”).
But he doesn’t want to be there. He’s panicked, he’s scared, but he pushes on anyway. That’s a key element to remember, and his fear (the very first shot is McClane gripping his armrest on the airplane), helps make him such a compelling hero. Repeatedly referred to as a “cowboy”, there is a rebellious side to McClane, but there’s also the sense of duty. We have no doubt that John wants to save his wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), but he handles the situation like a professional so he can save all the hostages. Again, he doesn’t think the best way to do that is to charge in guns blazing. That’s for Rambo or Schwarzenegger (both are referenced by name in the film). McClane needs help, but his ability to keep fighting on his own is part of the individualism that exemplifies the American character.
The American Identity is fluid and changes depending on the time period, but the events of Die Hard speak to the conservative values of the Reagan era with regards to government intrusion. The film is the celebration of the individual in spite of overwhelming odds to succeed, and government only gets in the way. It’s good to have the honest cops like Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) on the streets, but idiot superiors Robinson (Paul Gleason) and the FBI agents Big Johnson (Robert Davi) and Little Johnson (Grand L. Bush) have no idea what they’re doing. Even fighting in Vietnam is a subject for ridicule when Big Johnson happily shouts to Little Johnson, “Whooo! Just like Saigon!” as they fly in a chopper over Nakatomi, and Little Johnson responds, “I was in junior high, dickhead.” Those bad times are over, and now it’s time to rely on an ingenious, hard-working American to take care of business (in the building of a global mega-corporation, no less).
Furthermore, in addition to Hans, most of the villains are European, and well-financed Europeans at that (“judging by their clothes and cigarettes”). Hans is the perfect foil for McClane since both characters are smart and charismatic, but whereas McClane is the hardscrabble American, streetwise, and uncouth, Hans is foreign, cultured, and refined. Most importantly, Hans is almost completely reliant on his plan and McClane is the one who improvises. It’s American ingenuity that will save the day over orthodoxy.